Opening up a new front: Yahoo’s independent strategy?

Amidst the continuing Microsoft acquisition saga, Yahoo is making some interesting strategic moves, principally towards more openness and what used to be called the Semantic Web. This is smart, I think, and makes a lot of sense. Will it be valuable? Is their timing right? Not sure; that’s what makes it a business.

They’ve opened up their search engine, via their Open Search Platform initiative and are now extending that to an ‘open search ecosystem‘ that builds on the data web. Details are still emerging, but it looks like Yahoo is going to use lightweight semantics to try to connect data silos, rather than the traditional, now heavyweight, view of the Semantic Web — what the cool kids now call Web 3G.

You will be able to see this approach in projects such as Yahoo’s FireEagle, still in closed beta, which will provide location information with some privacy controls. Mor Naaman, a Yahoo researcher, has an example of FireEagle in action on his Stanford homepage; it’s a widget with his location — extracted from his mobile phone? — linked to current weather conditions there and a geo-tagged Flickr photo from that same place. Naaman recently argued that this lightweight approach will be successful in a way that the full-blown semantic web has never been able to achieve: “The Semantic Web is Dead” is the title of his piece.

For a more in-depth view of where Yahoo might be going with this, a colleague of Naaman’s at Yahoo Research, Tom Coates, has a good presentation, “Native to a Web of Data” (16Mb .pdf) on the subject.

Lots of questions, of course, remain about the viability — and then the monetization — of this approach, but there is a groundswell of this kind of lightweight semantics; tagging, for example, or the structuring of Wikipedia articles, or microformats for a bewildering variety of information — resumes, for instance.

Will Yahoo be able to remain independent? What would happen to these initiatives if Microsoft is successful? What will be Google’s response? Even assuming an independent Yahoo, will these lightweight 3G efforts ever make them money? How? The road to the Semantic Web is littered with many broken promises.